Robyn, a young English girl in the 17th century who craves adventure, finds more of it than she bargains for in Kilkenny, where her father has been sent to tame the Irish woods as part of Oliver Cromwell’s “pacification” of the country. When Robyn and her pet falcon Merlyn venture out past the city walls to help her father kill wolves, she comes in contact with a wild girl named Mebh who represents everything her father’s commander opposes. Are the Irish folk tales about “wolfwalkers” true, and does Robyn hold the key to saving the town and the forest?
I didn’t hear about the new animated feature film Wolfwalkers until this weekend, when I saw an ad for the film and its exclusive distribution on the Apple TV+ subscription service. When it played, I remarked to my wife, “This looks like it came from the same team that made Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells,” two of my favorite animated films. And indeed, Wolfwalkers comes to us from Tomm Moore, whose animated artistry made those two films stand out against a sea of hyper-realistic animation of this age.
Moore puts his artistry to more complicated use in Wolfwalkers, a film which might be the most political of the three — in its way. The Kilkenny under control of the “Lord Protector” and the English is almost entirely static and gray: rigid lines and rigidly protected, although not rigidly enough, as is shortly seen in the film. The town is repeatedly seen from above as a box with neat rows and ranks of structures, with hardly any sense of life or dynamism. It feels like nothing more than a military outpost, a dark hiding place for those who fear the unknown, rather than a community. This even extends to the people within its walls, especially the Lord Protector and the soldiers, including Robyn’s father, who are drawn in sharp angles and straighter lines.
In contrast, the forest of Moore’s imagination is a masterpiece of color, rhythm, and movement, without a straight line to be seen anywhere. The colors almost throb on screen, leaping and jumping in both joy and sorrow. Rather than confined in fear, the forest and its inhabitants live nearly fearlessly and with passion. Mebh and her mother are all rounded lines and motion, and even the wolves have more texture. As with both of Moore’s earlier films, Wolfwalkers has a vitality and beauty that transcends the story itself and pays homage to the Ireland of history and folklore in a way that makes the latter more real than reality itself.
The story itself relies on the Irish version of werewolf folklore, as well as the memory of oppression. In this version, those bitten by wolfwalkers will become wolfwalkers themselves, which tangles up the fates of Robyn and Mebh Óg MacTíre (roughly, Young Mebh of the Wolves in Irish), as well as their parents. The theme here should be easily discerned about the lack of respect for the natural elements, but it’s not an environmental argument being advanced — at all, really. This conflict relates to imperialism, with the forest barely disguised as a symbol for Ireland itself — indeed, the “Lord Protector” makes that an explicit point in his demand to kill all the wolves. The Lord Protector carries all of the sins of imperialism in Wolfwalkers, including Cromwell’s puritanical vision of religion and the intolerance at its heart.
Even with that political context, however, Moore plays fair with all sides. The only real villain is the “Lord Protector,” who never gets named but clearly is a representation of Oliver Cromwell, who held that title at the time. Robyn and her father, both English, are quite sympathetic, and young Irish bullies who torment Robyn are not treated with much sympathy at all. The local shepherds and farmers are more or less comic relief, and Moore treats everyone fairly equally — by which I mean fairly and equally. Given the circumstances and the historical weight, Moore’s artistic attack on English imperialism is surprisingly nuanced and unifying, lifting the personal over the political.
At its considerable heart, however, Wolfwalkers is about family and friendship — of the ties that bind and how they can tie us up from doing what’s right, and free us to do that as well. It speaks to what we have in common more than what separates us, and how the old and the new can coexist without one eclipsing the other. If the resolutions to the conflicts can be somewhat easily predicted, the journey itself is well worth it — especially with the beauty Moore and his team provide for us along the way.
Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Wolfwalkers gets a 4:
- 4 – Buy the film/subscribe to the service
- 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
- 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
The good news is that Apple TV+ gives people a 7-day free trial before charging for the service, and Wolfwalkers is available immediately. It’s rated PG, likely for violent imagery and tension; its violence is perhaps at the same levels as the Viking sequences in The Secret of Kells. My younger granddaughter had no trouble with that when she was nine, and I’d guess that she would have no trouble with Wolfwalkers then or now. It might be too intense for very young viewers, but otherwise it’s a wholesome film for the whole family to enjoy.